Andrea here, with summer nearly upon us here in the Northern Hemisphere, my thoughts are turning to reading (that is to say, I’m ALWAYS reading, but the long lazy, afternoons of the beach reading season always encourage thoughts of relaxing with the printed page—whether it’s old-fashioned ink or pixels.) It also got me to thinking of the historical heroines that we Wenches write, and how reading was an even more important part of their lives.
No television! No streaming! No social media! How on earth did they (assuming, of course, that they were among the privileged few who didn’t have to work endless hours to eek out a living) occupy their time? We know from first-hand accounts that letter writing and letter reading occupied a good amount a lady’s leisure, as did perusing the popular periodicals of the era.
We’ve likely all heard of La Belle Assemblée or, Bell's Court and Fashionable Magazine Addressed Particularly to the Ladies, which along with Ackermann’s Repository was one of the premier fashion magazines of Regency. The wonderful engravings of the latest au courant styles give us a vivid visual portrait of everyday life. But less well-known is that fact that these seemingly frivolous publications for ladies also contained serious reading content. La Belle Assemblée also featured, poetry, serialized novels and non-fiction articles on theater, politics and science. (Mary Shelley was a contributor) Reader submissions were also encouraged.
In the course of researching A Question of Numbers, my latest Lady Arianna Regency mystery, I discovered an even more intriguing publication called The Ladies’ Diary, which was published from 1704 through 1841, when it became The Lady’s and Gentleman’s Diary. From the first, it was a periodical dedicated to the inner not the outer lady! Building on the popularity of “word enigmas” or word puzzles, which became fashionable in almanacs of the late 1600s, its founder, John Tipper, concentrated on intellectual conundrums to engage his readers. While household hints, medical advice and calendars were included early on, he then began to focus on “brain-teasers.”
On Tipper’s death in 1713, Henry Beighton took over as editor and began to include more complex problems—including puzzles dealing with Newtonian infinitesimal calculus! Indeed, the magazine became known for its mathematical sophistication. During the Regency era, its readers included many of the top male mathematicians in the country, who vied with the woman readers to submit solutions to the puzzles posed in his pages. (One of its puzzles features prominently in the plot of A Question of Numbers!)
When you think about it, it’s not so odd that Regency women were attracted to The Ladies’ Diary. It was de rigeur for gentlemen, of course, to attend schools like Eton and Harrow, and then go on to university. But well-born ladies weren’t encouraged to tax their intellect. (A prevailing thought of the time was that exposure to science and mathematics would “fever their brains.” And alas, that sentiment still exists today.) Unless they had very progressive parents who allowed them to study the same subjects as their brothers, or were lucky enough to have a clever governess, most ladies were educated to perform household duties, with maybe some instruction in art and music. So, it’s no wonder that bright, inquisitive women chafed to have an intellectual challenge.
According to the Mathematical Association of America, the formula for the publication was fairly standard: The cover exhibited a portrait of the reigning queen; An almanac calendar was provided accompanied by astronomical details; Answers to previous puzzles, enigmas, paradoxes and mathematical problems would be given and then new sets of puzzles and problems would be posed for the year. Prize questions and enigmas would be designated; Occasionally, an expository article on a scientific or mathematical concept would also be included. As it happens, the first time they offered a prize for the winning solution to a mathematical problem, it was won by Mrs. Mary Wright, who over several years distinguished herself by solving many of the mathematical problems.
I n its article on The Ladies’ Diary, the MAA make a really interesting point. With the advent of Industrial Revolution, along with development of international banking, trade and a myriad other profession where mathematics came into play, it was publications that originally catered to women that inspired a whole new wave of scientific publications, and helped lead the way into the modern world.
I remember as kid eagerly awaiting the arrival of magazines such as Life and National Geographic, and would spend hours lost in their pages exploring new ideas and new places. Now, of course, we can simply open a browser and search for any information under the sun. But I miss that sense of anticipation and wonder in opening a magazine. What about you? Do you still subscribe to magazines? Did you enjoy them as a kid?